I recognized myself rather too much in this article on “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise” by Po Bronson, from New York Magazine. It’s an important article on an important study, so I’ll quote extensively before it goes away.
(Found via Rutabaga Dreams. Congrats on entering full communion with the Church, btw!)
“Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child… Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.
“But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.
“…Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?
“Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.”
This was me in school in a nutshell — except that I was way too proud to ask for help from my parents or teachers if I didn’t understand things. I’m still not really clear on how one does this, and my co-workers know that I would almost rather kill myself with work rather than ask for help. (Admitting a lack of factual information is okay, but basic incomprehension problems are still something I refuse to admit.)
(Also, I did most of my homework in the last few minutes before we had to turn it in, and took it for granted that I wouldn’t be able to remember it before then; and I had no friends to study with, so I never learned to study with other people.) Of course, I didn’t really find significant difficulty in learning anything but the times table (and I was comfortable with working hard on memorizing things) until I hit geometry in 10th grade, so that my academic problems didn’t manifest until fairly late. They didn’t really come home to roost until college, and even then, only in my remedial math class and my major.
But that was pretty darned ugly.
“When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.
But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.
For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly.
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”
Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.”
Now this has some problems as a study model, I’m sure you’ll agree. Any kid who was used to doing well on standard tests or on puzzles wouldn’t react the same way as the more generalized study population. I’d have been ashamed to pick the easy puzzles and arrogant enough to believe that I’d do the hard puzzles well, automatically. And frankly, when I was a kid, it was difficult for people to make puzzles hard enough to challenge me. Even things which I wasn’t good at (like spatial puzzles), I could still almost always complete correctly, even if I was constantly kicking myself for not doing them quickly and easily.
Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”
Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.
Now, this I do believe. As a child, I was constantly pointed out for being smart, and constantly criticized if a smart person like me didn’t do perfectly in everything. Ditto my brothers. But we didn’t feel particularly smart ourselves. As far as we were concerned, our intelligence was normal (and the fact that other people weren’t quite as smart, or not in the same areas, was something we kept forgetting).
But whenever we failed, or failed to do perfectly, we took it as evidence that we were stupid, and that now people had found that out. The only bright spot was that, at least if we were stupid, the other kids at school would quit picking on us so much. Of course this didn’t work, and people persisted in thinking we were smart anyway. So the cognitive dissonance caused us a lot of despair, which we manifested in various ways. No, we didn’t take drugs or act out — much. But in various ways, we all gave up on life very early. It was going to be unhappy and incomprehensible, and so were they, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.
Possibly this feeling that it was impossible to look good in our own eyes spared us the pressure to look good in other people’s. (I pretty much assumed that I’d be embarrassed and humiliated every school day, what with all the taunting, teasing, and such.) But it also made it obvious that there was no particular point in trying hard at anything, hard or not, unless we were interested in it.
Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.
Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). Even preschoolers weren’t immune to the inverse power of praise.
The attitude of “thou shalt not be seen studying” and “thou shalt not expend effort” is not so much “public proof you can’t cut it on your gifts” as I think the study author is theorizing. But then, I’ve never been anywhere where smartness was actually a peer pressure factor. My school system was full of very bright people; I was brighter than them. But we lived in totally different worlds, as they were much too cool to hang around with me and I barely noticed their existence. Many of them were huge grinds, actually, but I barely noticed that except to feel sorry about how stressed they always were. I figured I had stress enough in my life from getting through the daily schedule of taunts, pushes, and occasional personal injury without pointless worry about getting into college. My parents told me I’d need to get a four-year full ride scholarship if I wanted to complete college; I got a four-year full ride scholarship.
But I was never praised for working hard, even though I was often upbraided for being lazy. Granted, there was a hierarchy of criticism, and it was better, to my mom, to be criticized for missing a spot than not doing dusting at all, for example. But personally, I failed to see it that way. Pretty early on, I decided that it was a lot better to be criticized for being lazy or for not working at all — and to have that extra time for my own stuff — rather than to work very hard and get told it was all wrong.
(Ironically, my current job involves tons of hard work, for which I do receive praise. I suspect this is one of the major reasons I love my job, and don’t particularly worry about the fact that it doesn’t pay much and isn’t intellectually challenging.)
Anyway, the article continues with a lot of yaddablah about parents who can’t stand not telling their little darlings how smart they are. (Whatever. Doesn’t the article writer know it’s supposed to be all about me?) There’s also some encouraging data about one group of kids being taught study skills and that the brain is like a muscle and grows new neurons when challenged, while another group just learned study skills. (Heck, I learned study skills. It’s study habits I don’t have.)
It didn’t take long. The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.
The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.
…Dweck and Blackwell’s work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement’s key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.
After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”
Now he’s on Dweck’s side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”
By and large, the literature on praise shows that it can be effective—a positive, motivating force. In one study, University of Notre Dame researchers tested praise’s efficacy on a losing college hockey team. The experiment worked: The team got into the playoffs. But all praise is not equal—and, as Dweck demonstrated, the effects of praise can vary significantly depending on the praise given. To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific. (The hockey players were specifically complimented on the number of times they checked an opponent.)
Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.
This next bit is a bit weird and doesn’t fit my school memories, but probably is related to just how much “cheap praise” is being handed out to kids today.
Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.
In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further… Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well…
Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
Ouch. But it gets even worse.
Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this.
In one, students are given two puzzle tests. Between the first and the second, they are offered a choice between learning a new puzzle strategy for the second test or finding out how they did compared with other students on the first test: They have only enough time to do one or the other. Students praised for intelligence choose to find out their class rank, rather than use the time to prepare.
In another, students get a do-it-yourself report card and are told these forms will be mailed to students at another school—they’ll never meet these students and don’t know their names. Of the kids praised for their intelligence, 40 percent lie, inflating their scores. Of the kids praised for effort, few lie.
Now, I can’t really see either of these. Learning a new puzzle strategy might be useful or useless, but it’d be infinitely more interesting than seeing where one had scored. (Of course, I would usually assume I’d scored extremely high, and I wouldn’t really want to know if I were wrong about that. Potential boredom for a few minutes is better than potential depression for the rest of the day or week about how stupid and slow I was.) And although grading oneself is always wrenching (I’d usually give myself a grudging D, of course, since I’d have to admit that I hadn’t quite earned an F), one could hardly see the point of lying about it to others.
Of course, one is never honest about these things in front of psychologists, which might well have skewed the tests. Since standardized tests were very bad at revealing how dumb you are, you’d be safe from that perspective. But tests on feelings are much more dangerous. You have to figure out what answer a sane and normal person would give. So you would have to give yourself a B or something, just so the shrink wouldn’t realize how depressed you really were and put you in the loonybin. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if a large number of the really intelligent kids significantly underrated their own scores, seeing as many smart kids are both depressed and painfully honest (or tend to wallow in their own misery).
When students transition into junior high, some who’d done well in elementary school inevitably struggle in the larger and more demanding environment. Those who equated their earlier success with their innate ability surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery—increasing effort—they view as just further proof of their failure. In interviews many confess they would “seriously consider cheating.”
Students turn to cheating because they haven’t developed a strategy for handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child’s failures and insists he’ll do better next time. Michigan scholar Jennifer Crocker studies this exact scenario and explains that the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible, the family can’t acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.
While some of us get fifteen to thirty minute lectures on how our parents were so much more dumb than we are, but they got better grades, so why don’t we?
Cheating, btw, is for wimps. Not only is it dishonest, it’s a confession of abject failure. Mind you, it’s never been very hard to cheat; but if you’ve already given up trying, why bother trying to cheat? Too much like work and stress. If you can’t get a gentleman’s C or B while half asleep and totally unprepared, you’re obviously not strong on test skills. (Or you’re taking a test that is designed to negate such things, on a subject which resists BS. In which case, hope for a D, prepare for an F, and repent.)
But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.
What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?
Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”
A person who gets no rewards will also tend to quit when their self-reward system runs out, though that’s not usually a problem in our society. Although in some areas (chastity), I’m pretty sure that lack of praise and recognition is part of the problem.
(It occurs to me that chastity is the perfect example of a trait which should not be praised so much as the effort of working and struggling to become and stay chaste. Chastity is the effort, even when someone is so used to it that it becomes effortless. Probably this is true of all the virtues — they only exist in effort. Hence the connection of virtus with power, I assume.)
…Truth be told, while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime, it was I who was suffering. It turns out that I was the real praise junkie in the family. Praising him for just a particular skill or task felt like I left other parts of him ignored and unappreciated. I recognized that praising him with the universal “You’re great—I’m proud of you” was a way I expressed unconditional love.
Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.
In a similar way, we put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments. We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise. The duplicity became glaring to me.
Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.
That’s beautiful stuff. Take it to heart, parents!
Sorry for the round of wallowing, btw. It’s hard for me to be honest on this topic without being an emotional exhibitionist, so feel free to ignore the bits where the drama gets to be too much.